Many Nigerian Actors have fallen on hard times – Bob Manuel Udokwu
Bob Manuel has made a name for himself in the movie industry. The current Gulder Ultimate search anchor spoke with Funmi Elugbaju and Ada Onwuanum ...
Being a celebrated artiste in the industry, how does that make you feel?
It makes me humble, really, because I didn't start out thinking about the fame and what comes with it because I had always been a performer all my life. My first recollection of performing for the public was in primary school, my mum tells me about all the traits I displayed when I was a toddler, things I cannot remember anymore. I was trained by the late Professor Ola Rotimi who wrote The Gods Are Not To Blame. With this, I was able to tap very deeply into the man's reservoir of knowledge in theatre. He was a very strict theater practitioner and of course with the training and experience came the good fortune of being part of what is today being called Nollywood pioneer. We did Living in Bondage in 1992 and the industry sprang up from there. So, I can't say that I walked into this line of business with my eyes open. But, of course, you can never tell the picture so you won't pretend to know everything that is going to happen because one had the idea that actors were popular people, judging from what we have in America. We didn't have an industry and even those who were doing TV soaps were quite recognized. But the dimension it would take, one did not know until it became apparent that one was a force to reckon with. With that in mind, the answer to your question is it makes me humble, it gives me a very large sense of responsibility; that I have a lot of people who look up to me, especially young people. I have parents who admonish me and I have older people who draw inspiration from me as well, so it cuts across and it is a huge responsibility.
Was Checkmate your first exposure to the industry?
Nationally, yes. But before Checkmate, I was doing things. Before I got admission to study theater professionally, I was already doing stage performances. I was a presenter on FRCN Enugu. I was a guest presenter and I was also doing Television presenting. So, by the time I got admission to do that, I was already familiar with studio life for radio and on TV and of course performed as an amateur on stage. And so for me, it was a natural step from one end to the other. But even then, while I was in school, I was doing something for the TV in Port Harcourt. I did one or two things for national television but they were all one-offs. People usually know you for soap operas because you are on air almost every week especially when you play a vital or major role. In a sense, Checkmate was a drama series that gave me national attention and people could see me and call my name saying this is this person as opposed to when I was doing one-offs. Yes those who knew you before would still identify you but for Checkmate it was different. It became such that even when you go to Kano, Bayelsa, kogi people recognized you because every week on TV, 8-9 pm, they stayed glued to their TV sets and watched us display
You have really done a good job at remaining relevant in the industry. What would you say has kept you there?
First of all, I will talk about Providence. In this country where we are used to mounting guns all the time, even when it is obvious that people are conscious about religion in this country, but without saying I am not into the line, God has kept me where I am, personal effort and also hanging in there. I am from Anambra State, core Igbo land, where people look at the entertainment industry with disdain. Going to study Theatre Arts at that point in time when somebody was telling my father that how could you allow your son study Theatre Arts? And that what would he do when he comes out? That was the mentality, it still hasn't changed much. Even Nigerians as a whole , the attraction to the industry is more of curiosity to survive and of course in this era of “Yes We Can,” we have shown that we can. So, personal discipline, because a lot of people do not believe this, but as an individual I am reserved, very quiet and shy and that is why I draw the line between those who I call fly shiners who create the impression that for you to be an artiste, you have to either look weird or act silly or downright stupid. Like they say, the robe does not make the priest, its only costume. For me, when talent comes into play, I play. That means, I remove myself as Bob Manuel and play the role so I can do any creative thing. It is creativeness drawn from the source of creativity which is God because the world was created out of nothing. So, when you finish that, you drop your costume and be yourself. It is that discipline, it is that not playing to the gallery; that thing that makes me not to be noticed when I shouldn't be or when I basically want to keep my peace, even as an actor I draw a line between my work as an actor and myself as an individual. Yes, they say as an artiste you have no privacy, however where your right to invade my privacy starts, that is when my privacy begins, I discipline myself, I don't do anything in excess, but I try to key in to what will help the industry and I have sincerity of purpose. Finally, being relevant, because what am doing in the entertainment sector is a calling that was dropped upon me when I was born and so it is something that you can't keep me out of, like the musical birds that reinvent itself I guess somehow God helps me to keep reinventing myself, there is so much to be done and I work hard to be a catalyst to bringing back the industry to where they should be in the world of entertainment, am not talking about Africa but all over the world. For example Slumdog Millionaire the movie that swept the Oscars was shot in the slums of India. It cleared eight awards in the Oscars. God where are we?
Since you have been in the industry for a long time, how rich are you?
In terms of money, I can afford to eat my daily bread, because I work to get paid and people can see my means of livelihood, it is very visible. It is not like somebody who is nobody today suddenly becomes somebody tomorrow and we don't know the source and yet we shout Hallelujah. So, in terms of physical cash, I work to get paid and I get by. But in terms of goodwill acting has put me in a pedestal where I can walk into Aso villa without an appointment and am admitted to see who I want to see, it has also earned me real star treatment on an international airline precisely north American airline, flying back from New York in march last year. They recognized me in John Kennedy airport in New York. They didn't weigh my bag out of courtesy and while the flight was just starting, the flight attendant came to me and said you act in African movies, and they moved me out from there to the First Class and gave me the star treatment. These are just a few things. I mean people want to be associated with you. You go into the bank, and most of the bank staff will want to know why you are standing on the line. They will remove you from there and attend to you and majority of people want to do stuffs for you. During fuel scarcity, you park your car across the road, walk in to see the manager and he makes fuel available for you, of course not free of charge but there are things people want to do for you because they recognize the importance of your job. In a nutshell, I am very rich, not in terms of physical cash but the goodwill I have is much more than money. A phone call for me can open a door for me and I think the goodwill and the ability to do a lot without carrying cash means more to me than physical cash, I want to build a reputation that I should be able to move things in a positive direction without having to struggle to do that and helping others in the course of doing that as a result of what God has deposited in me from my ability to create things.
Are you married?
I am married with two children. The girl came first, her name is Hellion it's a Hebrew name meaning Most High and my son, I named him after the great African Jamaican called Marcus Garvey and so my son's name is Garvey. My wife's name is Cassandra and she understands what I do although she is the only one that can answer that question. I give her a lot of credit because the truth is it is not easy to be Bob Manuel, to be who I am, so how easy will it be for me to be the next person in the world of today where there are so many things calling for your attention at the same time. I am hardly around but when am home I try as much as possible to be with my family, play pranks with my kids and do lovey dovey with my wife. I always try to strike a balance but they are very understanding. I love my family.
What can you say went wrong at this year's AMAA as non-Nigerians carted away the awards
Well, as an individual I didn't even attend the Award because of some other engagements but we had a dismal performance at this year's AMAA. Well it goes to show that we need to buck up and do a lot of work. I must say that the organisers of AMAA too should think of investing in the industry. AMAA is an award that came as a result of the works we do. Millions is pumped into AMAA by the Bayelsa State government and U.B.A. I think it is not fair of the organisers of AMAA, to just organise AMAA ,bringing Americans actors and actresses and pay them well to come and enjoy themselves without even putting them here to do a film with us. Bring these people, yes but as they are coming let them know that under one week they will shoot a film with us. It is not enough to bring them here pay them money, give them all the necessary things they need and then they go back. Of what benefit is that to us? AMAA has not to put food on people's table in the industry.
Oh! Yes, the Award is about actors and actresses. Let me tell you what it should be, Nigerians should expect that immediately after AMAA comes a major movie follows. Even if it is one every year. A major movie involving American actors and actresses with some of us that are here so that they will truly know that they came to Africa. Take them to our villages and shoot films. Let them feel Africa. It is not about putting them in a big hotel in Lagos or Abuja or Yenagoa and then they go back home without even tasting the soil of Africa or smell Africa. Most of them, when they come here during press conference, the first thing they will say is I'm so glad to be here, why wouldn't they be glad to be here. They are paid to come, they are given the best treatment, let them come and see how we do movies.
Are you now blaming the organizers of AMAA for Nigeria's poor outing?
I'm not casting blame, I'm just stating facts. I don't believe in blames, other people can see it as blame but for me any objective thinking person will know that Bob Manuel is stating the facts. I mean it may not occur to them but this is a forum for them to know that some of us don't feel what is going on. You see the height and excitement is all long gone. Now AMAA has to re-event itself. It is not a question of blame, if anybody sees it as blame all well and good but I think there is something called constructive criticism.
What is really Nigerian movie practitioners?
There is meltdown. A meltdown is effecting Nollywood in fact it is a pity, It is horrible. Go to Winnies
a lot of our practitioners have falling on hard times, many people are in poverty and you don't shout praise the lord on empty stomach . You can't effectively entertain when people are hungry. Some of those awards should even be extended to veterans in the industry who have falling on hard times, give them hundred thousand of that millions that they vote for AMAA every year. Call some of them recognize them and give them two hundred thousand each from AMAA'S money . Five of them is one million and ten of them at hundred thousand each is one million, vote it aside and give it to this people they are falling on hard time.
Let us talk about your contract with Gulder, How did you get the job of anchoring the Gulder ultimate search?
I was auditioned, we were ten that were auditioned . After the audition by insight, the insight is the company that handles the Gulder account. We were auditioned on recorded and camera after that they sent it to Nigerian breweries. Well they know what they are looking, I believe that they looking for the best, eventually I was the person they selected. I'm glad, so far so good will be on it and I have a good relationship with them and the brand also, the ultimate Gulder.
Your face is scarce in movie now, will it be a sign or an indication that Gulder ultimate search is bringing more money?
My face is not scarce, I have been shooting films. There is a number of films I have shot that have not released, beside how many people's faces are all over the places now? How many posters do you see on street of Lagos? Is not only my face. How many films has any body featured in this year, this is first quarter of the year before Mile 2 you will see space, Ojuelgba you will not see space. The meltdown has melted everybody but we are still surviving. In this meltdown were screaming I was far away in America shooting a movie. The ultimate search is still done on T.V it is still the media. What if I become a governor tomorrow would you say you are no longer acting because you are a governor. Richard Mofe my friend is a commissioner if you give him a script he will do it fast and go back to his commissioners job.
I noticed that former Gulder ultimate search anchors are both tall guys, is it meant for only tall guys?
It will not be out of place if you say that height also enhances charisma. How many shot people have you seen cast in roles of king in films even in oyibo land? Height has a role to play. How many short people have won Miss Nigeria or any beauty pageant for that matter. I'm talking about short people not average, they have their place. In real life a short person can be a king but there must a reason for you to cast a short person to play the role of a king. But like I said if it is my height alone there there were those who came for the audition that were taller than me. There are combination of factors that only Nigerian breweries can answer.
What impact do you think that Gulder Ultimate Search is making in the life of youths?
Oh! It is changing a lot. Now if you bring 10 young people, I mean the age rate and none is up to 30 years yet but once they enter successfully as one of the 10, they don't go home empty handed. It is not a winner takes all event, the exposure is also there as a spring board. Most of them in the past are gainfully employed. Now, those that are still in school are doing very well, after the search all of them get paid very well and they have open access to Nigerian Breweries. They are free to come and do things and Nigerian Breweries does things for them as well. So it changes their lives a lot, and not just Gulder Ultimate Search only. All the brands are targeted at helping the youths.
How long are you staying with Gulder Ultimate Search?
It is left for the owners of the production of show to say. But for me, they have not given me any cause to say I'm not happy with them and I believe that I have not given them any cause to say they are not happy with me . So I think we have a wonderful relationship.
Is it true you are a friend of Wesley Snipes?
It's true. Wesley is a good friend of mine. He is having some problems lately, but I pray he gets over it.